Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Engineering the Po-210 murder

  1. Nov 25, 2006 #1
    (A parallel discussion, on the politics and diplomacy, is going on here:

    "A Rare Material and a Surprising Weapon" (NYT)

    So then - who had the means to do this? Is there any possibility of rogue organizations having stolen large quantities of this radioisotope, to "discredit" Putin's administration (as he claims)? (last paragraph in article) Or are the nuclear superpowers the only possible assassins here? Are the quantities used in ionization sources (LANL periodic table, under "uses") of the order of magnitude to be usable? What about radioisotope thermal generators - are there any recent ones with Po-210, and could it have been stolen from there?

    And any speculation as to why such a crazy, exotic assassination, one that's so obvious and incriminating?
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 25, 2006
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 25, 2006 #2


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    Not too many places have this capability, but certainly the Russians have such capability. They Russian nuclear establishment has looked at Pb and Pb-Bi cooled nuclear reactor concepts for quieter submarine reactors.

    According to CIRIA, an education organization, polonium is found in the waste stream of nuclear weapons production.
    http://www.safegrounds.com/pdf/c_best_practice_guidance_for_site_characterisation.pdf [Broken]

    Po-210 (like Pu or Ra) has been used with Be for neutron sources. The energetic alpha particles collide with the Be-9 nuclei producing neutrons and alpha particles.


    It would be difficult to pin this on Putin. Perhaps one of his supporters took the initiative, and maybe Putin knows about it. Dealing the Russian government is somewhat like dealing with the Mafia. There are good people in the government, but the corruption is so rampant it takes time to differentiate between good and bad.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  4. Nov 25, 2006 #3


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Dearly Missed


    Basically anyone with access to a research reactor.

    The irradiation could have been done at many universities
    or industrial firms.

    Dr. Gregory Greenman
  5. Nov 29, 2006 #4
    I was wondering how much one would need for a lethal dose. From a link that I found on Wikipedia: "Rats injected intravenously with a lethal amount of 210-Po (1.45 MBq/kg body mass) died within 14-44 days." http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/095530097143338

    I would guess that this is of the same order of magnitude for many alpha-emitters.

    Let us suppose that Litvinenko's dose was at least of the order of 10^8 Bq. That would be 2500 americium smoke detectors.
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2006
  6. Nov 30, 2006 #5
    Professor Nick Priest says a giga-becquerel ("no more than a few micrograms").

    "A lethal dose for ingestion or inhalation by a human being would be between 500 and 5,000 microcuries, according to calculations done by Dr Regan and his colleagues."

    Conversion: 1 milli-curie = 37 MBq.

    These amounts of material are not difficult to obtain:
    http://www.rules.utah.gov/publicat/code/r313/r313-021.htm [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  7. Nov 30, 2006 #6
  8. Dec 3, 2006 #7
    From a good article in the New York Times:
    (requires registration)
  9. Dec 3, 2006 #8
    Finally I found a number about the dose - a massive overdose:

    Edit: And Scaramella is now reported saying:
    At first his radioaktivity was not detectable...
    Maybe doctors told him that he has five times the maximum allowable burdy burden of 1100 Bq?
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2006
  10. Dec 5, 2006 #9
    How can we detect it to prevent it?

    As there are alpha,n reactions that can come from Po-210 being near low Z materials, could we detect this pure alpha emitter through its neutron production? Neutron production is low but has anyone done the calculation?
  11. Dec 5, 2006 #10


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Dearly Missed


    If you want to detect Po-210; you look for the alpha itself, provided you are within
    range of the alpha. Detecting alphas is EASY because they are charged, compared
    to detecting neutral neutrons - which are detected by detecting their reaction products.

    If what you had in mind was detecting Po-210 at a longer range by detecting a long
    range daughter particle, namely a neutron; that won't work either.

    You are not going to get any (alpha,n) reactions at the relatively low temperatures here
    on Earth for most materials. You find (alpha,n) reactions in STARS!!

    Beryllium-9 is the one exception. However, the reaction cross-section for the
    Po-210 alpha is only a few hundredths of a barn.

    No - alphas of the energy consider here are just going to scatter off other nuclei.

    Dr. Gregory Greenman
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2006
  12. Dec 5, 2006 #11
    Dr. Greenman,

    alpha,n reactions occur with many SNMs and alpha sources. Po210/Be, Am/Be and Pu/Be are examples. The alpha detection with any reasonable standoff distance is not possible. Of course from a forensic perspective one can do urinalysis or blood work and count with liquid scintillation but to detect it for counter terrorism purposes one needs a method involving nuetrons or gamma rays. There are no gamma rays but neutron production from low Z materials is possible. For a lethal dose say 5-15mCi the production with O or N is too low but halide forms may be detectable. If we talk about several orders of magnitude higher activities (that are likely from terrorist activity) then oxides or aqueous solutions might provide enough production of neutrons. I am not sure of the volume distribution in the body and the practicality of doing such a measurement but this incident does represent a challenge to those involved in nuclear security applications.
  13. Dec 11, 2006 #12
    Some new numbers on Scaramella's dose from http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601102&sid=ae13ie5Ij2oY&refer=uk [Broken]:
    So they were asking good questions, but the answers do not really add upp - as the reporter seems to be very well aware of.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  14. Dec 11, 2006 #13


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Dearly Missed


    I'm aware of that. However, if you go to your post to which I responded; the question
    was whether there were Low Z (alpha, n) targets!!!

    The cases you cite, Po210/Be, Am/Be, and Pu/Be; the alphas from the heavy nuclide
    will induce (alpha, n) in the Be-9. Additionally, the neutrons produced may be augmented
    by an (n, 2n) reaction on Be-9.

    Dr. Gregory Greenman
    Last edited: Dec 11, 2006
  15. Dec 18, 2006 #14
    "Litvinenko's killers used polonium worth $10m"

    Desinformation, of course.

    Here is a company that makes antistatic devices based on polonium:
    http://www.nrdstaticcontrol.com/FAQ.asp [Broken]

    According to the Swedish newsper 'Ny Teknik', NRD exported 244 GBq of polonium to Sweden alone (in 587 cartridges), for use at 171 different companies in Sweden.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  16. Jan 17, 2007 #15
    A recent technical press release concerning dose-assessment from Po-210 measurements in excreted urine can be found here

    http://www.hpa.org.uk/polonium/Dose_Assessment.pdf [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  17. Jan 17, 2007 #16
    Some more Po-210 stuff

    Hi All

    New here (a great find, I was directed here by a good client of mine).

    I will do a full intro in due course, but with respect to this current subject I thought you might be interested in the following links:

    A news entry


    And a blog comment (scroll down to the 2nd entry on the page,7/12/2006)


    Some of this will be teaching you to suck eggs (I am a Radiation Protection Adviser and not a physics bod and I do not try to be!!). Aspects of the site are commerical but that is not the point of putting the links here (> 50% of the site is information only).

    Hope you get something out of it.


  18. Jan 26, 2007 #17
    So it seems it was not sushi, but tea. Hot tea.

    About doses:
  19. Mar 8, 2007 #18
    A further technical paper by the UK Health Protection Agency has just been published in the Journal of Radiological Protection, with lots of gruesome details about the effect of alpha poisoning.

    http://ej.iop.org/links/rMi7FeUVd/2i8gh2LN2xGVnqiAav5vpA/jrp7_1_001.pdf [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook